Coastal Commission and State Parks debate future of Oceano Dunes

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is the only park in California where vehicles are allowed on the beach.
The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is the only park in California where vehicles are allowed on the beach. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is likely to see some big changes in the coming years, as the state looks to re-examine some of the park’s long-standing policies.

The California Coastal Commission debated key issues about the park’s use and management at a meeting Thursday in San Luis Obispo.

Among the questions: How many vehicles can be in the park at once? Where can it be accessed from? How is the park monitored?

The meeting revealed some long-standing tensions between the commission and State Parks regarding conditions from the 1982 conditional-use permit for the park’s operation that have gone unmet for more than three decades.

The commission received a report on the off-roading area, as both it and State Parks begin the arduous process of attempting to balance the recreational aspect of the park with its environmental sensitivity.

Commission staff recommended doing away with the park’s current management and monitoring system through a stakeholder group in favor of a more effective alternative. Staff also recommended removing the limit on the number of vehicles allowed in the park and pushing State Parks to meet a 3-decade-old condition in the park’s permit that required the commission to approve a permanent access route and staging area in the park. (The existing routes are still termed “interim.”)

“As you probably heard, there are no easy answers here,” Central Coast District Deputy Director Dan Carl said Thursday after about an hour of public comment. “There are a lot of different opinions, and it’s really complicated.”

He added, “One of the reasons for this recommendation today is to take some baby steps. Some would like to see really big steps. In our view, we just need to move forward, and change the framework and the way we look at this thing.”

No action was taken on the topic Thursday. Instead, the commission directed staff to return with an update or final recommendations when it comes back to San Luis Obispo County in September.

Three decades of controversy

The Coastal Commission approved a conditional-use permit for the 3,000-acre park in 1982. The permit allowed State Parks to establish “interim” access and staging areas for off-road vehicles and set up limits on the number of cars that could be in the park at one time.

The permit required State Parks to bring a proposal for a permanent access and staging area to the commission within three years after the permit was issued. They never did.

The park can be accessed through entrances at either Grand Avenue in Grover Beach or Pier Avenue in Oceano, and off-roading vehicles can be unloaded at a separate staging area within the park.

State Parks considers these access paths and the staging area to be permanent because they have been in continued use for close to 35 years, but their technically interim designation makes studies and implementing new policies difficult, said Coastal Commission Central Coast District Supervisor Kevin Kahn.

The permit has been amended numerous times since 1982, including the addition of a Technical Review Team, or TRT, management group in 2001 to study and provide recommendations on vehicular use and resource management within the park, with a special emphasis on environmental concerns.

It was formed in response to growing concerns that off-roading activity endangered several sensitive habitats and unique local species, such as the western snowy plover that makes its home on the southern end of the park.

Both the commission and State Parks say the TRT process is “no longer effective,” Kahn said.

One of the major detriments to the TRT process has been its failure to determine how many vehicles the park should allow at any given time, he said.

When it was founded, the TRT also was tasked with determining the exact capacity for the off-roading park that would balance environmental needs with recreational wants. Instead, the park has continued to limit the number of vehicles allowed based on an arbitrary number the commission chose in 2001.

That limit was based not on the number of vehicles the park should allow, but on historical use.

To help remedy these issues, staff recommended Thursday that the commission modify the park’s conditional-use permit structure to implement a different way of monitoring, assessing and adapting park management — possibly by removing the vehicle-use limits or TRT and by requiring State Parks to submit a study examining permanent access and staging areas.

A divided public

Those suggestions were met with an array of responses from both the public and commissioners.

Some spoke in favor of removing the use limits, saying it inconveniences off-roading visitors who come into town only to be turned away if the park is full.

“When the use limits are full, they are stuck,” said Nicholas Lalanne of the Pismo Dune Riders. “They have nowhere to go. They have nowhere to camp. It’s a great burden for those people who are on vacation.”

Lalanne said he hopes the off-roading area — the only coastal one in the state — will remain open for years.

“The opportunity we have in these Dunes for people to be able to use them is huge,” he said. “We need to make sure we can keep it accessible for generations to come.”

Others who opposed the off-roading park showed pictures or videos of people at the Dunes violating regulations like speed limits, performing tricks and even driving through the Arroyo Grande creek, damaging the banks.

“Look what they are doing. They are not just crossing the creek, they are destroying it,” said an impassioned Lucia Casalinuovo, who brought in a video of a truck appearing to drive over one of the naturally formed banks of the creek. “Do not give them any more power than they already have.”

Others, such as Fred Collins, the administrator for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, pointed out that the area is of great historical importance. He lobbied for more outreach and input from the local indigenous peoples.

“We see things connected — everything is connected,” he said. “We see the slow death of a cathedral. Can you imagine what the Dunes were for us? A place of worship, a place of unimaginable connection to the great creator.”

Though they were not making a decision Thursday, several commissioners took the opportunity during the hearing to voice support or disapproval for some of the recommendations.

“We do both have missions, and they both must be met. And right now the Coastal Commission’s mission is not being met under this permit.” said Commissioner Mary Shallenberger, noting the tumultuous relationship the commission and State Parks have had in the past.

“I go into this with cautious optimism,” she said.

Shallenberger, who also passionately advocated for more Native American participation in future discussions and a permanent access and staging area, ardently opposed removing the vehicle-use permit, saying she couldn’t understand how that would help the park.

“At least it’s something,” she said. “ ’Cause without it, we have nothing.”

The commission will revisit the issue at its September meeting in Cambria.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie